April 11, 1893. The date fits squarely in a less than dull era of American history. Placed against the general background of reconstruction, sandwiched between the Civil War that introduced the draft of young men and the American women’s suffrage movement early in the following century. More immediately, less than one month before the Chicago World’s Fair opened in celebration of Christopher Columbus’ great North American find and fair booths selling every trinket were to find enormous economic success for months, vesta cases among them. Yet in the midst of the gender revolution to come, expressions of maleness and gender conditions were a staple in the marketplace and merchandise were ripe with gendered marketing by those looking to line their pockets. In a capitalist logic, it made sense to harness the very certain power of masculine leanings when proposing products in the marketplace. Such a product, a certain vesta case, was patented on that very day.

Vesta cases, as referred to in Great Britain, or strike-anywhere matchsafes as they are more commonly known as in the US, are among such products that took advantage of gendered buyers and activities. Many were decorated heavily, utilizing metals of varied qualities to make vessels of fantastic shapes and colors for cigarette smokers of every tax bracket as well as other utilities involving instant fire, such as lighting stove tops and furnaces. Vesta cases were blank canvases for both massive factories selling wholesale products to sellers and also to hand crafters creating bespoke versions for the upper class. The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum was gifted an over 4,000 piece vesta case collection from collectors Carol B. Brenner and Stephen W. Brenner. I chose a few vesta cases that featured heavily male motifs as an extension of gender expression, the most prominently mentioned one being the case from 1893. The inventive design on these vesta cases indicate a gender tradition that mirrored equally gendered behavior in real life.

Figure 1 is the matchsafe whose patent dates April 11, 1893, designed by J.M. Fordham in Brooklyn, New York. The patent is only for a generic “match box or like receptacle”, meaning they were purchased in bulk by a distributor before customization (figures 2 and 3). The vessel is most likely made of brass, a relatively cheap metal, yet silver plated, imitating the look of a more expensive product while cutting costs. This is largely indicative of lower class men unable to afford expensive metals but in the market for goods that look like they are more valuable than they are; pretenses matter to a degree. It features a simple button release mechanism to open the case easily and fill with strike anywhere matches, sold separately (figure 4). Contemporary strike anywhere matches are hard to come by due to their being too highly combustible, hence the need for cases to contain them.

The outer face imagery of the case features a running gag among many versions of vesta cases of the time. Officially titled Three of a Kind, the outside metal showcases two donkeys stoic in the face, facing each other and flanking a single line of text , “THREE OF A KIND.” Presumably, the person holding it plus the two pictured on the case make three “asses.” The monogram space on the back completes the picture (figure 5). This very self deprecating kind of humor is fantastically crude and classically masculine, a show of a confident dominance culture in the way the owner being ready to joke about himself is not a threat to him. His confidence can stand to take a beating, so to speak and the imagery in his pocket thereby functions as a power move.

Signs of masculine life continue to the opposite end of the case, which contains actual mini-dice. Five were made and included in the vessel, but only two remain with the Cooper-Hewitt. They are packed into a removable cup made from the same brass as the rest of the vessel and silver plated as well. The term “chucklehead’ is synonymous with “ass” and ‘donkey”, perhaps akin to the ones imaged on the case. The dice may have very well been used to play Chuck-A-Luck, a tavern betting game that used three dice. With two extras in the set and a metal cup included, this vesta case was likely utilitarian to some degree. The use of the dice housing vesta case is suggestive of both the kind of person who would be in the market for such an item and the nature of the places they occupied. Gambling games were and are still vastly considered masculine activities, activities also existing outside of class divisions. Vaguely seedy betting games of chance funding the equally seedy taverns they took place in is very clearly a man’s space.

The dice themselves are likely some variety of early plastic that is off white in color from aging but also in imitation of a finer ivory, on brand with the equally cost cutting silver plating. The other hints of inexpensive craftsmanship come from the unevenly drilled inkwells for the notation of the 6 sided dice. The ink is of a nontoxic variety, likely common black India ink. The price reflected the reality of the industrial take on handiwork. At $0.25 each wholesale and a suggested selling price of $2.40, or about $7.66 and $73.49, respectively, after adjusting for inflation according to the 1895 Montgomery Ward catalogue, these are not exactly the crown jewels (figure 6).

The theme of crude tavern humor is a prominent one in many other vesta case imagery. Figure 6 is another vesta case, this time made of silver all the way through and imaging the oil on canvas painting Dice Players by German painter Arthur Zaepful (1888-1967). The tavern scene is a condensed version of the painting of middle aged European men playing what looks to be chuck-a-luck pounded into the cusp of a mold. Figure 8 is a vesta case that also includes actual dice, though these three are made of a classical and more expensive ivory. They are housed behind an aged glass case, more ornamental than utilitarian unlike Three of a Kind. The rim of the glass case is brass to highlight the difference between that and the silver coated exterior of the rest of the vesta case, indicating some extra craftsmanship as well as the actual ivory much like how Dice Players is made of actual silver. Though both these examples include some better quality material and make that would raise the price for a wealthy buyer, a motif of male centered gambling persists.

Overall, there appears to be a unifying element to owning such male centric vesta cases, which makes sense. The activity of smoking, very much so a male bonding experience even in the modern period but exceedingly so during the heyday of vesta cases, is one of the major practical uses of a vesta case to begin with. Using the item most men already gravitated to to creatively refer male attractions, gambing and crude humor in these examples, was ultimately a method of more aggressive marketing. Harnessing the power of gender insecurities as a marketing ploy is still one of the most successful tried and true methods. As long as buyers find community in their gender traditions, sellers can trust that they will have a dependable source of income.

Works Cited

Cottone Auctions. “Dice Players.” Arthur Zaepful (European , 1888-1967). Accessed Jan 20,2020. https://www.cottoneauctions.com/lots/58618/arthur-zaepfel-european-1888-1967-dice-players

Shinn, Deborah Sampson. Matchsafes. Scala Publishers In association with Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum Smithsonian Institution, 2001.